Public Comment

Does Barbara Lee Still Speak for You and Me?

By Henry Norr
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:22:00 PM

When four Oakland police officers were killed last weekend, Rep. Barbara Lee wasted no time before speaking out. The very next day—on a Sunday, no less—she issued not one but two press releases expressing condolences to the victims’ families and support for their colleagues. The following day she took to the floor of the House and for more than six minutes paid tribute to these “fallen heroes,” as she put it. The press statements promptly appeared on her official website, and a video clip of her remarks to the House was posted to her YouTube channel. 

Unfortunately, she wasn’t nearly as quick to respond to some other recent incidents of violence that have concerned many of her constituents: 

• Oscar Grant. After the BART police murdered Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale station, Lee made no public statement about the incident for more than a week. Only after hundreds of her constituents had taken to the streets to express their outrage—not only at the killing, but also at the establishment’s demonstrable indifference to it—did she issue a statement declaring that her “thoughts and prayers are with the family of Oscar Grant as they grieve the loss of their loved one.” 

Even then, she and her staff don’t seem to have made much of an effort to get her statement out. They didn’t even bother to post it on her website—as of March 25, it’s still not there—and the only place Google finds the text is in a Bay Area News Group blog, not even in the Oakland Tribune or other East Bay papers. (On Jan. 14 Lee issued another statement saying she was “pleased” at the arrest of former officer Johannes Mehserle. That one did make it to her website.) 

• Gaza. As I detailed in the Jan. 22 issue of this publication, Lee was similarly reticent about the U.S.-funded Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. She refused to join Reps. Dennis Kucinich, Lynne Woolsey, and John Conyers, among others, in sponsoring a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and unrestricted humanitarian access to Gaza. She didn’t issue a statement of her own about the onslaught until it had raged for 20 days and upwards of 1,200 Palestinians, including more than 400 children, had been killed. 

Even at the time there was plenty of evidence about the brutality of the Israeli attack, and by now it has been amply documented by international and Israeli human-rights groups, European and Israeli newspapers, and now even Israeli soldiers who participated. Top UN officials, progressive leaders around the world, even several American Jewish organizations have condemned what Israel did and continues to do in Gaza. Lee still hasn’t. 

• Tristan Anderson. On Friday, March 13, Oakland resident and well-known activist Tristan Anderson was critically injured in the West Bank village of Ni’lin, when he was hit in the forehead by a high-velocity tear-gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier. The incident occurred at the end of Ni’lin’s weekly demonstration against the construction of Israel’s Apartheid Wall, which will make a quarter of the village’s land inaccessible to its farmers. (That’s a quarter of what’s left—over the last 61 years Ni’lin has already lost more than 80 percent of its original area to Israeli landgrabbing.) 

By all accounts Tristan was simply standing quietly, with his Jewish girlfriend, and taking pictures when he was shot. Israeli soldiers fired more tear gas at the Palestinian medics trying to rescue him, then blocked the ambulance transporting him for at least 15 minutes. When he finally made it to an Israeli hospital, doctors had to remove parts of his right frontal lobe. Almost two weeks later, he remains there in critical condition. 

A few days after the shooting, I called Lee’s Oakland office to urge her to speak out—not just about the injury to one of her constituents, but also about the lethal weaponry and violent tactics Israel routinely unleashes on Palestinian demonstrators, however nonviolent they may be. (Since the 4,750 residents of Ni’lin began their weekly demonstrations last summer, the Israelis have shot and killed four of them, including a 10-year old; on the same day Tristan was hurt, a resident was hit in the leg with live ammunition, and five non-violent demonstrators were injured by rubber-coated steel bullets at the nearby village of Bil’in; three more demonstrators, including two Americans, were injured at Bil’in a week later; and so on, ad nauseam.) 

I also pointed out that when an Israeli bulldozer killed Rachel Corrie in 2003, her Congressman, Brian Baird, made a public appearance with her parents just three days after her death, in which he described himself as a “strong supporter of Israel,” but called Rachel’s death “profoundly troubling,” demanded that people be “held accountable,” and pledged to introduce a resolution in the House calling for the State Department to undertake a “thorough and comprehensive” investigation. 

I know that many other friends of Tristan and of Palestine also called or wrote to Lee’s offices. After a week without a substantive response, some of us let it be known that we would be raising these issues at an appearance Lee has scheduled at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco (12 noon on Friday, March 27), as well as at several upcoming readings from her recently published autobiography (Renegade for Peace and Justice: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me) at local bookstores. 

Whether that’s what did the trick, I can’t say, but this past Tuesday—11 days after Tristan was shot—the following statement finally appeared on Lee’s website: 

“My thoughts and prayers remain with Tristan Anderson and his family as he continues to recover from the tragic injuries. The day after this horrible incident, I conveyed my concern to the State Department and have asked for a complete report and ongoing updates about the incident. I remain very concerned about Tristan’s case and will continue to press for answers about this tragic incident.” 

I appreciate Lee’s concern, and I’m sure Tristan’s family and personal friends do, too. But for someone who calls herself a “renegade for peace and justice,” her statement was pretty namby-pamby. After all, as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, she’s in a position to do more than just express concern. 

For starters, for example, she could call for cutting off the $3 billion plus the U.S. spends annually on military assistance to Israel, on the grounds of its repeated violations of the Arms Export Control Act, a U.S. law that requires governments that receive weapons from the United States to use them only for legitimate self-defense. How about proposing that that money be redirected to low-income housing or child-care support or drug treatment programs here at home?  

More broadly, as someone who boasts in her autobiography of her role (as an aide to then-Rep. Ron Dellums) in pushing through the Congressa policy of sanctions and divestment from South Africa, she could have announced her intention to lead the struggle for similar penalties on Israel, until it agrees to a just peace with the Palestinians. 

Of course, all this is sheer fantasy, at least for now. But if her constituents make it clear to Ms. Lee that we expect her to speak out as promptly and forthrightly about attacks on civilians—at home and abroad—as she does about the murder of police officers, maybe we can drag her back to her progressive roots. 



Henry Norr can be reached at henry@